'Dream Land': Phnom Penh Review

Dream Land Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Chen Office/Anti-Archive
A beautiful but weightless reverie about urban alienation.

Architect-turned-filmmaker Steve Chen's debut revolves around a young, affluent real-estate agent's struggle to confront her crumbling relationship amid the construction frenzy in the capital of Cambodia.

Taking its title from the name of a brash amusement park in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh — one which boasts of commercial partnerships with, among others, soft-drink manufacturers and schools catering for the scions of the social elite — Dream Land offers an intriguing peek into the lives of the once war-torn Southeast Asian country's nouveau riche. What begins as a visually stunning exercise about vacuous lives, however, soon spirals into merely a vacuous visual experience; with a flimsy screenplay motored by superficial characters and their very vague intentions in life, architect-turned-filmmaker Steve Chen struggles to anchor his images and concerns to the ground.

Still, Chen's Cambodian-U.S. production does offer a rare look at the state of things in Cambodia in the here and now, as a new set of problems emerge to haunt what some have described as the "post-genocide" generation, for whom go-getting capitalism looms much larger as a specter than the nightmarish years of the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979.

Having made its bow at Locarno, Dream Land has since been picked up by the Thai distribution collective run by, among others, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Aditya Assarat and Lee Chatametikool. Indeed, Chen's film echoes many a stylistic and thematic traits of the trio's reflections on modern life, specifically Aditya's Hi-So and Chatametikool's Concrete Clouds. With Mosquito's festival prestige, Dream Land should be able to add further festival stops after its "homecoming" appearance at the Cambodia International Film Festival in Phnom Penh.

Read More Angelina Jolie Pitt Accepts Honorary Post at Cambodian Film Fest

Dream Land begins with a shot of the protagonist navigating her way at the busy traffic roundabout at Phnom Penh's Independence Monument. But Da (Duch Lida) is not on a scooter or an auto-rickshaw; instead, she's behind the wheel in a swish sedan, as she listens to a pumping pop anthem while sealed off from the mayhem of the streets. This is someone leading an upwardly mobile existence detached from the dust and dirt of the world out — or down — there. A blooming real estate agent specializing in prime, luxurious properties, Da is shown working, talking and resting in or atop skyscrapers. Even when she ventures to buy books from a street stall, she doesn't leave her car, as money and goods change hands through the window.

Examples like this abound in the film's first half hour about Chen's canny sensitivity of the meaning of modern, urban space — and how it is packaged, presented and then sold off as commodities playing to the manufactured tastes of the parvenu. Da sells a villa to a man by emphasizing the building's starring role in a gaudy pop video. In another outing, she trumpets the merits of a high-rise apartment to a farming couple who, having just sold their paddies to a Korean property developer, now seeks a pad near the clouds because they "have had enough of living down on the land".

But Da is not self-aware enough to see through the superficiality. She might frown on the cheesy antics and work of her model-snapping photographer boyfriend Kun (Sokun Nhem), but she also spends her time reading sappy poetry, romance comics and belting out ballads at karaoke joints.

Read More 'France Is Our Mother Country' ('La France est notre patrie'): Yamagata Review

Her insulation from introspection continues well into the second part of the film. While Chen attempts to introduce some innovation into the proceedings — when a scene becomes a karaoke video with sing-along subtitles, or when a mixed timeline thrusts Da and Kun back to their passionate first days as lovers — the film begins to founder for want of some new substantial things to say about the characters and the cocooned world they live in.

On a day off, Da travels with her friends to the seaside resort of Kep, and visits a colonial-style villa used as a holiday home by the late monarch Norodom Sihanouk. The intellectual of the group (played by real-life photojournalist Kim Hak) mentions that this house has withstood the ravages of the Khmer Rouge, but barely has that thought sunk in when the film cuts to Da, sitting on the villa's balcony and getting emotional about her desire to "erase memories." Not that of history however — just an instance of her returning abruptly to her relationship issues and man problems. It's an unfortunate editing decision that adds to the litany of fluffy, repetitive moods, expressions and lines as the film limps toward the end. Da's self-obsession becomes not just an onscreen symptom of middle-class malaise, but the diagnosis of a promising premise grinding to a halt off screen —  a dream one struggles to remember in the morning after.

Production companies: Chen Office, Anti-Archive

Cast: Duch Lida, Sokun Nhem, Kim Hak

Director: Steve Chen

Producer: Steve Chen

Associate Producers: Davy Chou, Kavich Neang

Screenwriter: Steve Chen

Cast: Duch Lida, Sokun Nhem, Kim Hak

Director of photography: Douglas Seok

Art director: Kanitha Tith

Editor: Jason S Lee

Music: Keiichi Sugimoto

Venue: Cambodia International Film Festival

International Sales: Mosquito Films Distribution

No rating; 90 minutes